For 28 years, the Melbourne based ABC Natural History Unit has been producing award winning documentaries showcasing the unique flora, fauna and rugged beauty of Australia. It is no surprise that many of these popular programs have been available on VHS for some time. After a long wait, we are now seeing their introduction to the DVD format.
Produced by Jeremy Hogarth, the man behind ‘The Kimberley – Land of the Wandjina’ (1991), ‘The Big Wet’ (1993) and the multi-award winning ‘Nature of Australia – A Separate Creation’ (1998), Bird Suite is billed as a stunning visual and symphonic journey through the vast landscapes of the Antarctic, Australia, and the tropical rainforests of Papua New Guinea. On both counts it does not disappoint. Showcasing performances from a range of Australia’s Symphony Orchestras, Bird Suite presents a spectacular video portrait of the diverse scenery and the inhabitant bird life of our region.
Starting in Antarctica with its emperor penguins and albatross, we progress to the Australian mainland and its diverse range of ecosystems. We glimpse emus in snow covered highlands, wedge-tailed eagles tussling over carcasses through an inland heat haze, massive flocks of cockatoos and parakeets, hawks fishing in pristine mountain streams, majestic black swans, singing lyre birds and screeching sea gulls. We finish up in the rainforests of New Guinea with beautiful birds of paradise.
Bird Suite views like a nature documentary without the commentary. It is well edited by Rosie Jones (‘Lizards of Oz’ 1993, ‘A Window on the Wild’ 1994) such that the scenes have been chosen and the cuts have been made to nicely complement the orchestral pieces. The natural sounds provided by the footage are effectively combined with the music. I was not previously familiar with the musical pieces chosen, (listed below), but found them a perfect compliment to the footage. It would be interesting to know if the music was chosen to match the footage or visa versa.
In short, the scenery is breathtaking and the music pleasant and relaxing.
It is fair to say that Bird Suite is aimed at a niche market. However, I was surprised to find it immersive and enjoyable despite being neither a fan of classical music or a bird lover. Slumping down after a stressful day in the office, Bird Suite to be a very nice way to unwind. Although it screams 'New Age', Bird Suite is a satisfying and relaxing experience.
Track 1 - Harp concerto Op.74 (2nd movement) composed by Gliere and played by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra.
Track 2 - Piano concerto No.1 (2nd movement) composed by Listz and played by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra.
Track 3 - Symphony No.1 in C, Op.21 (4th movement) composed by Beethoven and played by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.
Track 4 - Cavatina composed by Myers and played by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.
Track 5 - The Pines of Rome (Pines of the Appian Way) composed by Respight and played by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra.
Track 6 - Symphony No.5, Op.64 in E Minor (3rd movement) composed by Tchaikovsky and played by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra.
Track 7 - La Boutique Fatasque (Galop) composed by Rossini and played by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
Bird Suite is presented in an aspect ration of 4x3 and contains some beautiful footage from a diverse range of locations. The birds that populate these locations are spectacularly colourful, and the film provides us with a great level of detail. Suffice to say it is a visual feast, and ordinarily would have made a fantastic demo disc. However, much of the footage that makes up Bird Suite seems to have come from video stock. This is quite evident from the graininess in the picture - typically occurring as a result of camera panning (which is essential when following moving animals). Having said this, the limitation in the source material goes largely unnoticed and in no way detracts from the beauty of the scenes. I would be surprised if this spoiled anyone's real enjoyment of the disc.
Much of the time the audio is dominated by the classical tracks, mixed with a small amount of ambient sound from the footage. The music does not continue for the entire duration of the programme and there is enough time between interludes to appreciate the relaxing sounds of nature on their own. The 5.1 audio mix is good, but could have been better. The surround channels are utilised mainly to widen the sound-stage - I had initially expected them to contain a greater proportion of ambient noise. Unfortunately, there is little need for the .1 channel.
The menu is simple and functional, providing two audio choices (Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0), and chapter access to each of the music tracks. No (other) extras are included on the disc. Bird Suite does have a very ‘documentary’ feel . As a result, I found myself at times frustrated by a lack of knowledge about what I was watching. A great addition to the DVD version of this release would have been to utilise the subtitle option to annotate the video with information such as the locations and various bird species.
In VHS style, the disc begins with the ABC DVD logo and launches straight into a (skippable) promo trailer for ABC video. At first I was concerned by the quality of the picture, but it quickly improved. After a second viewing, I am convinced that the transition from grainy ABC logo to shiny new promo is an intentional inclusion by the ABC to illustrate the improvement in quality provided by DVD (if this needed illustrating!).
Frankly, I am surprised by the ABC’s decision to retain the VHS legacy of ‘header promos’ for its DVD releases. It would have made more sense to include the trailer, and many other previews for ABC releases as a selectable list of 'Other Releases' or 'Recommendations' from the main menu. As it stands, there must be a fair bit of space left on the disc. It will be interesting to see how the ABC approaches future DVD releases.